FORT DODGE, Iowa — A Catholic diocese acknowledged Wednesday that it concealed for decades a priest’s admission that he sexually abused dozens of Iowa boys — a silence that may have put other children in danger.
Father Jerome Coyle, now 85, was stripped of his parish assignments in the 1980s but never defrocked. And it was not until this week, after The Associated Press inquired about him, that he was publicly identified by the church as an admitted pedophile, even though the Diocese of Sioux City had been aware of his conduct for 32 years.
The diocese recently helped Coyle move into a retirement home in Fort Dodge, Iowa, without informing administrators at the Catholic school across the street.
In 1986, Coyle reported his “history of sexual attraction to and contact with boys” to Sioux City’s bishop, revealing that he had victimized approximately 50 youngsters over a 20-year period while serving in several Iowa parishes, according to a private letter written in February by the diocese vicar general and obtained by the AP.
The diocese told the AP on Wednesday that it never contacted police or informed the public after Coyle’s admission.
“The diocese admits it could have been handled better,” diocese spokeswoman Susan O’Brien said. But she said the policies in place at the time did not call for notifying police or the public.
Instead, the diocese at the time announced without explanation that Coyle was taking a six-month medical leave of absence. Church officials transferred him to a treatment center in New Mexico, the Servants of the Paraclete, where other accused priests nationwide were once commonly sent.
Coyle was stripped of his ability to lead Mass and otherwise function as a priest. But he never faced further punishment and lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, until recently, retaining the title “Father” and collecting financial assistance from the diocese.
In 1986, the diocese was aware of one complaint against Coyle from a college student but did not have that man’s name, O’Brien said. That individual and another now-adult victim have come forward in recent weeks, and their allegations against Coyle will be reported to police, she said.
His total number of victims could be higher than 50 because the diocese remains “uncertain of an accurate number,” O’Brien said.
Coyle is unlikely to be prosecuted for any of his long-ago offenses because the statute of limitation has run out. He has not been named in any civil suits, and O’Brien said the diocese has never paid a settlement related to him.
He has not been publicly accused of molesting any minors in the past three decades, but lawyers and detectives are looking into what he has been up to since 1986. Fort Dodge police interviewed Coyle and searched his apartment last month after being tipped off that he was living near a school.
Coyle declined to comment Friday after answering the door at his apartment.
The bishop to whom Coyle reported his abuse, Lawrence Soens, retired in 1998. A review board later found that Soens himself had abused students when he was a priest and parochial school principal.
As a member of the clergy, Soens was not a mandatory reporter — someone obligated to tell police about child abuse allegations — under Iowa law. But critics said he still should have called authorities, sought to have Coyle defrocked, alerted the public and asked victims to come forward. Soen’s whereabouts are unknown.
Unlike other dioceses, Sioux City has never released a list of priests who have been credibly accused, despite calls from victims to do so.
“The Sioux City diocese covers everything up,” said attorney Scott Rhinehart, who has represented dozens of victims and calls the diocese a “haven for pedophile priests.”
The case has come to light amid a push by prosecutors around the country to hold the Church accountable, not just for the sexual abuse of youngsters but for efforts to shield accused priests. In recent months, authorities in at least a dozen states have opened investigations, and federal prosecutors have launched an unprecedented statewide probe in Pennsylvania.
The diocese privately revealed Coyle’s past in a letter to a Catholic couple who had been allowing Coyle to live at their Albuquerque home after he was injured in a 2017 car accident. The letter warned the couple, Reuben and Tania Ortiz, that the diocese “cannot condone the risk you take” in allowing Coyle to live with their three teenage children.
“The letter was very scary for us as parents,” said Reuben Ortiz, who had been friends with Coyle for years and was unaware of the extent of his abuse. He said that he confronted Coyle and that the priest could not guarantee that he would be able to refrain from fondling his son. But Coyle had nowhere to go and continued living there until June, when deacons from Sioux City moved him back to Iowa.
“I was up day and night for days sometimes, patrolling my own house,” Reuben Ortiz said.
In the letter to Ortiz, and a similar one to Coyle, Vicar General Father Bradley Pelzel tried to discourage the priest from moving back to Iowa. He said the boys Coyle molested would now be men between the ages of 45 and 70, and they “could potentially encounter him and be retraumatized by the memories that would surface.”
The diocese offered to increase Coyle’s monthly retirement assistance by $575 so that he could afford an assisted living home in New Mexico. But that idea didn’t work out, and the church instead helped him move to Fort Dodge, into a care facility adjacent to Saint Edmonds Catholic School, whose students routinely visit.
Lawyers for the Ortiz family said the case illustrates how the Church’s secrecy poses a continuing risk to children. They urged Coyle’s victims to share their stories, saying they have been “suffering in silence.”
“This is the time for Father Coyle’s victims to seek justice, and the time for the Church to account for its cover-up,” said attorney Levi Monagle.
Experts called the Sioux City letter extraordinary for its written acknowledgment of abuse and continuing concealment.
“The letter shows in black and white that the system of covering up continues to this day, even after everything that’s occurred,” said attorney Craig Levien, who has represented dozens of abuse victims.
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.